That first night away from home was the hardest. I lay on my cot and cried silently as I stared at the ceiling in the dark. I asked myself repeatedly what I was doing in San Antonio, Texas, 1,300 miles from East L.A., sleeping on a strange bed in a strange dormitory packed full of strange bald guys. I wanted to sleep, but could not. I wanted to be home, but I wasn’t.
I had joined the Air Force. We could no longer refer to ourselves in the first person. From here on it was, “Sir, trainee Salgado reports!”
Hours earlier, I’d stepped off the bus onto Lackland Air Force Base to begin basic training. As I lined up in front of the bus, our Training Instructor (TI), Staff Sergeant Pat, was in my face, growling on how ugly I was and snickering over how much fun awaited us at his resort.
The name-calling began. Our first names were never spoken. We were now called “rainbows” because we arrived wearing a motley of colored civilian clothes; “green sleeves” because we then wore green uniforms with no stripes on our sleeves, ranking lower than the bottom of a TI’s dress shoes.
The sound of the metal taps on our TI’s high-gloss Oxfords never left us. His military Smokey the Bear hat tipped forward just enough for it to appear he’d topple over you at any time. He was our invader of personal space.
Unfortunately for me, personal space was a big deal. As a kid I always had to share a bedroom with my siblings. Now here I was in a dormitory packed full of strange bald guys. Here, the TI owned you. I got to know his breath well. The worst part was that I had asked for it.
Months before, the recruiter offered me a chance to learn to fix military planes, travel to exotic places, and earn money for college. I was eager to see the world, liked airplanes as a kid, and had no money. Within days of graduating from high school, I raised my right hand and took the Oath of Enlistment.
In high school I had taken the military enlistment test used to measure abilities. Scoring high overall, I was quickly accepted for training in aircraft maintenance. I was excited but first I had to get through basic training.
With Staff Sergeant Pat that wasn’t going to be easy. At 4 a.m., the morning after our first night at Lackland, I awoke to “Wake up bunnies!” He picked up a metal trash can and tossed it across the dormitory room. As he passed my cot he kicked the bed frame. After a far-too-quick shower and breakfast, first on our agenda was physical training followed by classes. And that’s how it was going to be. Our lives prescribed to the minute. A “town pass,” seemed an eternity away.
They had perfected the art of castigation and documented it with a “Form 341,” used to write up recruits for “discrepancies.” Even the 341s had to be pre-filled, folded, and inserted just right into the correct shirt pocket of each recruit, slightly sticking out and ready for the TI to “pull” at his discretion. We had to carry two of these completed forms on our person. Too many of those and you’d be heading home.
That’s not how I wanted to return. So I endeavored to survive and even excel. But it didn’t seem to be going that way.
One morning, while marching, it got into my head that “Pat” was a girl’s name. I had a sister named Pat who wrote to me while in basic training. To me, it was a girl’s name. I knew better, but that thought was enough to put a smile on my face for just a few seconds as the idea of my dreaded TI having a girl’s name tickled my fancy. My TI saw me smiling. You don’t smile in basic training. My first 341 landed.
I was christened “latrine queen.” To help me work out my wrong ways, I was assigned to lead a crew of penitent recruits in cleaning the communal restroom. With many well-used toilets before us, we had plenty of time to rehabilitate. Working “the head” for hours has a way of reinvigorating one’s resolve to do things right the next time.
When we were finished, the TI had to approve. Of course, he didn’t. Instead, he handed us some used toothbrushes and directed us to scrub the grout between the tiles on the floor around the toilets. I reasoned that at least I was gaining leadership experience and building strong arms.
I collected my next 341 over my underwear. Like everything else, underwear had to comply. The rule was that it be folded a certain way to a six-inch square after washing. Otherwise it was not presentable for inspection. I placed my stack of six-inch underwear squares on my bed for inspection. Before inspection but after I placed these on my bed, a fellow trainee named Maubry, a big, black fellow from the South came over and sat on my cot while we chatted. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me at the time, his weight on the bed was enough to shift my underwear so as to distort my squares. With that brief error, a 341 flew out of trainee Salgado’s shirt pocket.
So it went, one after another, the 341s zoomed along, each landing on the squadron commander’s desk. It was always little things that got me somehow. I worried. Would I make it through basic training and on to my aircraft training?
I had no time to dwell on it. I had to focus on the big tasks at hand, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. But we counted the days remaining. We saw fellow recruits leave us early for home, some for medical reasons, some for not meeting standards, some for being unable to keep their mouths shut and follow directions, and some for reasons we knew not.
As the days passed, I thought less and less of home and became engrossed in my situation. I stopped asking what I was doing in San Antonio, Texas, some 1300 miles from East L.A. The weeks passed and I began to enjoy my classes.
M-16 rifle weapon fire was a blast, though I didn’t earn the small arms marksmanship ribbon I hoped for. Some of my fellow trainees teased me about that because they figured I was from East L.A. and should have had plenty of experience with a gun. Actually, it was a first for me.
I studied or practiced the Uniform Code of Military Justice; the law of armed conflict; weapons cleaning; chemical, biological, and nuclear defense; Air Force history, military citizenship, physical fitness; drill or marching; and took on the dreaded obstacle course.
As the end of basic approached, I took my last examinations and waited for results. Would I be allowed to march at Retreat and Parade? These were ceremonies where we “graduated” and were welcomed into service with the “world’s most powerful air force.” It was then we could finally wear the blue uniform instead of a trainee’s green uniform.
On the last day of classes, my TI announced an award to be presented at a special ceremony to a trainee who had excelled, awarded only to one in the top 10 percent. It was late afternoon and I was dozing off, his words barely registering.
Unexpectedly, I heard him call my name. He ordered me to come to the front of the class. I snapped to it.
“Salgado, you’ve been bugging me since day one. You like to bug me, Salgado?”
“Heck, I guess there’s only one way to get rid of you for good…”
With that, he grabbed a 341 from my shirt pocket as I stood in front of the entire class. Mortified, I froze expecting the worst. Instead, my TI wrote something down, and began reading out loud.
“Trainee Salgado has consistently excelled on his military studies, physical fitness evaluations, drill… I therefore recommend him for Honor Graduate recognition.”
Staff Sgt. Pat began to clap and my classmates, too. I had never seen him smile like that. Trainee Salgado got to proudly pin the Air Force BMT Honor Graduate Ribbon on his blue uniform.
As I strolled through the San Antonio River Walk in my blue uniform on a Town Pass after graduation, I read a plaque about the Alamo and savored a sugar cone of pistachio ice cream.
In a moment of flashback, I recalled my first night in basic training and the question that consumed me that first night. Immediately, I began to silently recite the Airman’s Creed.
“I am an American Airman. I am a warrior. I have answered my nation’s call… .”
I licked the green ice cream, melting in the Texas summer, and savored the thought of going home in blue.